Otter focus [Big Sur & Monterey Bay Aquarium]

I have been seating on a rock in the wind overlooking a small creek along the coast of Big Sur for a good half hour by now. If the landscape is stunning with the green and rocky cliffs falling into the Pacific Ocean, it is a raft of sea otters that I am contemplating with a grin: grooming, diving to find some food, entangling themselves in the kelp fronds… One of them is a mother carrying her pup that must be close to 7-month old on her belly, or at least its head as the pup seems to be getting too big and too heavy for her! California’s most iconic and most adorable specie is so much fun to observe. While I am taking photographs, I realize how lucky I am to see them in the wild. This would not have been possible without the research and conservation work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

About 100 years ago the fur trade brought the population of sea otters down to 2,000 in the world and only 50 in the Monterey Bay area. They were on the verge of extinction. The hunting was so intense that the sea otter population had divided between north and south creating Alaskan and southern subspecies. Today the balance is still fragile. The southern sea otter is still endangered, but you are very likely to spot a raft of them amongst the 3,200 individuals living in and around the Monterey Bay.

The one location where you really cannot miss them as they are the local attraction is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Around feeding time, the public gathers and learns about these cute bowls of fur while kids wow at them. The aquarium has been paramount in raising the awareness about sea otter conservation amongst its two million visitors a year – give or take. Behind the scenes, 35 years of study have been leading to a successful and unique program: when a pup washes off on shore it can be taken care of and raised by a surrogate mother at the aquarium. First, the pup is healed if it is injured, while being hand-fed a similar milk to its mum’s. Its fur is groomed by hand 3 hours a day while avoiding to bond to keep its wild instincts. Later the pup is paired with an adult female that teaches it how to fish, groom, dive, crack crabs and mussels open with rocks… Once the pup has fully recovered and learnt the skills needed to survive in the wild, it can be released into the ocean.

This program has been incredibly successful and many pups have been released in the wild, reaching reproductive age and getting pups themselves (during the surrogate program, the sea otters are often GPS-tagged for the follow up). The fishing has ended and the future seems bright for the specie.

However researchers are faced with new challenges: the Californian sea otters seem to suffer from a fairly high death rate that plateaus or decreases its population count. The Monterey Bay Aquarium tries to analyze the threats and to find an efficient answer:

  • The aquarium was part of the actors who promoted the establishment of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest marine protected areas in the USA to prevent oil spills and oil building up in the ocean sea otters are very sensitive to.
  • The Sea Watch program helps us make the sustainable choice when we order seafood to fight against overfishing.
  • Diseases mostly caused by parasites seem to be the current challenge. More specifically, toxoplasmosis is putting the sea otters at risk. Carried in cats’ poo, campaigns to raise the awareness amongst cat owners to ask them to throw away the poo and not flush it are in progress.

If pups and sea otters are a public’s favorite, beyond their cuteness factor they are critical to balance the ecosystem of the kelp forest. With shrimps, clams, squids, crabs, mussels and abalone, they also love eating urchins. These same urchins that eat the kelp: without the otters, the kelp would simply disappear.

When sea otters had almost vanished, so had the kelp forest. In the 1950’s after almost a century of industrial fishing in the bay of Monterey the kelp was almost gone. Today, it is thriving and this is excellent news as its photosynthesis processes a lot of carbon dioxide and oxygenates the ocean. Holding fast to the rocky bottom these huge plants grow upward then spread their green-gold frond across the water creating a dense canopy of growth. It is home to many juveniles who are protected by its lushness.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been leading in raising the public awareness and designing conservation programs for the past 40 years. Beyond sea otters and the kelp forest, success stories are many: the elephant sea lions were 24 left only, the great whale was disappearing, populations of pelicans plummeted by 90% because of DDT pesticides… But major challenges remain like the shark population decline and the warming up of oceans due to climate change to name only a few. If nature is resilient, it is only until it is too late and then there is no coming back. Species have already been disappearing on land and in the oceans. The work of organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium is critical in learning how to act ourselves in order to slow down and hopefully stop this process. We all need to act and to act fast before it is too late.

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • For details, refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Your entrance ticket funds the aquarium programs.
  • Stay at the Jabberwock Inn. The cute and comfortable bed and breakfast decorated with a great attention to details and unmistakably with the best breakfast in town is only a few blocks away with great views on the bay.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.